We saw Amsterdam based Klezmer/Gypsy/Balkans band Payazén busking in York this week. I’ve no idea who the real finest buskers in the world are, but, if you want my opinon, Payazén have got to be up there with the best.
As a former street performer myself, I always look at who’s doing and what they’re about with some interest.
To me, there are four things which make or break a street performance — whether for cash, paid for by an event organiser, or for any other purpose.
- What you see or hear from a distance. Lots of people sound good close by, but, if you watch, a lot of people will give busker a wide berth or hurry on past. Great buskers make you want to change course to go and find them.
- How well they can grab and hold an audience. This is about the quality of the show, it’s about eye contact, it’s about there being enough variation to keep you wanting more, and it’s about being loud or bright enough to be comfortably heard and seen with all the street’s distractions
- How you relate to potential customers. Some buskers seem to imagine that if you’re performing on the street, people owe you money to listen or take photographs. Great buskers know that most passers-by only put money in the pot if they’ve experienced something they really enjoyed.
- What the audience can take away with them. Busking is a fleeting moment in someone’s life. A great flyer for an event, a well-produced CD, a balloon sculpture… anything the punters take with them can fix the experience into permanence.
These guys have all of this in spades. The sound of their Jewish-Gypsy acoustic folk came snaking down the street long before we saw them. They’d positioned themselves in front of a beautifully designed but evidently commercially unsuccessful former pork-butcher, which framed them nicely, and they dressed the part. Visually, a clarinet, a double-bass and a violin on the street with money thrown into a violin case and no extraneous amplification is vastly more appealing than, say, an electric guitar, a CD player giving background music and two or three miscellaneous battery powered amplifiers, supporting an ice-cream tub for coins.
The longer we watched, the better the music got, and when I produced a £fiver to pay for the CD, the clarinet player winked at me and nodded before carrying on. By this time quite a crowd had gathered (there were six of us, and nothing draws a crowd like a crowd), and the band upped the tempo and the energy to give everyone who had bothered to stop the show they deserved to hear.
The CD itself was — on the surface of it — as home made as they come. It was a plain CDR with a CD label attached, and the sleeve was paper made into an envelope with the aid of eighteen (!) staples. The artwork was hand-drawn black and white, an apparently photocopied with the kind of multi-copy degradation that I haven’t seen since the 1990s. All the lettering was by hand, and the production credit was “Recorded at school studios Amsterdam”.
It wasn’t until I got it home and put it onto the hifi that I discovered that this was a professional recording, expertly made and expertly mastered. A true delight to take away, and more than worth the £5 it cost me.
A look at their website http://www.myspace.com/payazen reveals that these aren’t just some guys who happened to have some instruments with them when in York. They’ve also got a Facebook page if you prefer that route. They’ve played Glastonbury, and are on a UK tour. York was just — it would seem — an impromptu stopping point. But a treat for all who saw it just the same.
There were many buskers in York that day. One man played exquisite classical guitar music on a Fender Strat. Great to hear, but nothing visually to compare with Payazen. Another upbraided me for taking his photo without permission, clearly having failed to learn the first law of busking: people will only give you money if you make them want to. We saw another busker whose act had cleared a wide space around them, as people hurried past to avoid eye contact. There was also a pianist who had brought a stripped down upright piano into the street. He was probably brilliant, but we only got to hear him for a moment, as he went off for a short break just as we arrived. Certainly, a piano on the street is a good start for the kind of star quality that Payazén exhibited.
Anyway, if this has whetted your appetite, listen to their tracks on myspace. See if you agree. Are these the finest buskers in the world?